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May 1, 2011: “Usury-Maybe Jesus Should have Gone After the Money Lenders (Subtitled: Atlas Shrugged, Jesus Didn’t)”


      A man and woman had been married for more than 60 years.  They had shared everything. They had talked about everything. They had kept no secrets from each other except that the little old woman had a shoe box in the top of her closet that she had cautioned her husband never to open or ask her about.

      For all of these years, he had never thought about the box, but one day the little old woman got very sick and the doctor said she would not recover.

      In trying to sort out their affairs, the little old man took down the shoebox and took it to his wife's bedside. She agreed that it was time that he should know what was in the box. When he opened it, he found two knitted dolls and a stack of money totaling $95,000.

      He asked her about the contents. 'When we were to be married,' she said, 'my grandmother told me the secret of a happy marriage was to never argue. She told me that if I ever got angry with you, I should just keep quiet and knit a doll.'

      The little old man was so moved; he had to fight back tears.  Only two precious dolls were in the box. She had only been angry with him two times in all those years of living and loving. He almost burst with happiness.

     'Honey,' he said, 'that explains the doll, but what about all of this money? Where did it come from?'

     'Oh,' she said, 'that's the money I made from selling the dolls.'

     Money is not an easy topic to discuss, partly because very few us can really be objective about it; it also has become very political and partisan. And, of course, it often depends on how much money you have and especially how you got that money! It is also a class issue as well as a cultural one.

     Several men are in the locker room of a golf club.  A cell phone on a bench rings and a man engages the hands-free speaker function and begins to talk. Everyone else in the room stops to listen.

MAN: “Hello”
WOMAN: “Hi Honey, it’s me. Are you at the club?”
MAN: “Yes.”
WOMAN: “I’m at the store now and I found this beautiful leather coat. It’s only $2,000. Is it OK if I buy it?”
MAN: “Sure, go ahead if you like it that much.”
WOMAN: “I also stopped by the Lexus dealership and saw the new models. I saw one I really liked.”
MAN: “How much?”
WOMAN: “$90,000.”
MAN: “OK, but for that price I want it with all the options.”
WOMAN: “Great! Oh, and one more thing. I was just talking to Janie and found out that the house I wanted last year is back on the market. They’re asking $980,000 for it.”
MAN: “Then make an offer of $900,000. They’ll probably take it. If not, we can go the extra eighty-thousand if it’s what you really want.”
WOMAN: “OK. I’ll see you later! I love you so much!”
MAN: “Bye! I love you, too.”

The man hangs up. The other men in the locker room are staring at him in astonishment, mouths wide open. He turns and asks, “Anyone know whose phone this is?”

     Indeed, how much money we have often influences how we think about money, power; and very occasionally it seems, money is a religious and/or moral issue. It is often difficult to try to define liberals and conservatives, because most of us are in the continuum somewhere, just as there is a continuum of Democrats and Republicans intertwined with religion, business, family, and culture. There are, however, few, if any truly economically poor Congress people!

     That all makes a difference in how we look at the federal as well as our church budget! I'm going to use the words liberal and conservative fairly loosely, realizing as well that they are not necessarily the same as the two parties, though it often looks that way and again that there is a wide spectrum of degrees of each.

     If we take one simple issue like welfare, for instance, we have a variety of issues that are seen from opposite sides. The liberal supports helping the poor by government programs and the idea of sharing what we have; the conservative sees the whole idea of welfare as one that weakens our system and encourages the poor not to work or take care of themselves. There is also a racial problem here, of course where prejudice factors in, but it is also a class issue.

     So how we even hear this sermon is probably going to be problematic for some, but I encourage us all to remember the prophetic part of ministry where part of our job, I promised early on, was to comfort the afflicted and sometimes afflict the too comfortable!

      I stole the subtitle of the sermon from a great article by that name I recently read: "Atlas Shrugged; Jesus Didn't," by Isaiah J. Poole. Someone once quipped that the real purpose of religion was to keep the poor from murdering the rich! Even the idea of being rewarded in heaven is based on an ancient idea that if you're poor here on earth, but follow the religious rules or believe the right doctrines, you will be rewarded with a mansion in heaven, but if you are rich here on earth, you probably won't get to heaven, since you've already been rewarded! There was, and in many ways still is, the idea that if you are successful- notice how that usually means, wealthy- God has obviously rewarded you and therefore you must be have done something right!

     Notice also how almost all religions warn against the corruption as well as the obligation of wealth, and most religions are thousands of years old while sounding very contemporary about the issue of the disparity between the rich and the poor.

     Indeed, there is a variation of reinterpreting the story of 10 plagues that God sent Pharaoh, when Moses asked to let his people go, adapted by some rabbis and a UU minister, Mark Belletini, of First Church, Columbus.

Ancient and Modern Plagues for Passover Seder Dinner (adapted from Rabbi Chava Bahle, Rev. Dr. Mark Belletini & Reb Seth Castleman)

Dam, the river turned to blood -the blood of devastating wars, choking the life-springs that could nurture the world
Tzfardeyah, frogs-the extinction of many species ? as many as 30,000 per year, rivaling the Great Extinctions of the past
Kinim, lice-the horror of great poverty
Arov, wild beasts-humans acting like beasts, animal passions inflamed in a hyper-sexualized world
Dever, blight-healing and health available on the basis of wealth
Sh’hin, boils-additives in our food, unnaturally fattening cows and unhealthfully fattening us
Barad, hail-soot and chemicals from factories and cars vomited into the sky, returning as acid rain & smog
Arbeh, locusts-six million foreclosures our wealth being consumed by banks which pay NO income tax

Hosheh, night instead of day-long before the plagues, the Egyptians had trouble seeing what was going on around them they refused to see the humanity of the slaves around them. We, too, often choose to not see. We ignore the exploitation of domestic workers. We scoop up cheap consumer goods without asking by whom they are made, in what conditions. We close our eyes to the tens of millions of people living in conditions of slavery in our world today (from Rabbis for Human Rights, North America)

Makat B’horot, ‘death of the first-born our children’s future hangs in the balance”

     So now let's talk about usury, which is defined simply as charging interest on a loan, which the Judeo Christian originally strongly condemned, but now usually means to an exorbitant rate of interest, say like what many credit cards charge of 20 or more percent! But I will argue that the idea of usury is inseparable from the question that this country is being face with in our economic problems, and which Ayn Rand in her Bible, Atlas Shrugged deals with, should there be a limit, or rules set by government, about how much profit business cam produce?

     The capitalism economist says the market should be allowed to control itself naturally, and that government should NOT interfere. I will argue, as do many others, including some economists of a different persuasion that the recent economic disaster was a clear failure of that economic model, and that is truly and deeply ironic that the government felt obligated to step in and bail out some of our financial institutions so that the entire economy did not completely collapse like the Great Depression! Can we see what happened to the economy and to tens of millions of us who are in the middle class when the economy and capitalism is not regulated well enough? Does anyone remember the Savings and Loan debacle of some decades ago?

     One of my favorite stories of Jesus as prophet is when he throws the money changers out of the temple, and I want to argue that today he might be throwing out the moneylenders! Part of that story was that the moneychangers had a monopoly and started to take adverting and raising prices (can you say oil companies?) on changing money from the secular coinage to temple money that was sacred, so that people could buy unblemished animals like birds, etc, to sacrifice!  The followers of Jesus, who later came to be called Christians, shared their resources and lived very communally. The miracle of the feeding of the 5000 with bread with a few loaves and fishes can be seen as a parable of sharing, not supernatural magic! Indeed, lets ask "What would Jesus do?" to the conservatives, most of whom claim to be followers of Jesus!

     "So," as one of my colleagues asked, "I start with a starting question: is the present distribution of wealth and income in the United States a religious problem?"  My answer, of course, is yes, and how do we address it? How do we deal with the exorbitant rates of interest, the usury? I'm not saying redistribute the wealth or encouraging communism, but for heaven's sake, if you'll pardon the religious pun, we must learn to share! We are our brother's and sister's keepers, that is, we have a human as well as religious responsibility to help one another, and there will still be enough left over that there will always be wealthy people!

     Let us have a "compassionate" capitalism, what some are calling a "Conscious" capitalism that does not practice Usury or substandard loans or materials, or forgetting that real people's lives are involved and sometimes ruined when we ship jobs overseas to then take advantage of other people's poverty by paying substandard wages, all in the name of profit.

     This is a religious issue as well as a political one, and what a way for all religions to work together to encourage the billions of followers to act in a more moral capitalism and congress. Let us learn to truly and deeply share with one another.